How does dirty timber from Sarawak get to the USA?

Many consumers want to make responsible choices when it comes to their purchases, but sometimes it’s hard to know what the safer, more ethical choice is. Certification schemes are a tool that many people (understandably) use to help them make those choices. Unfortunately, the credibility of these schemes is not always dependable. Dirty timber regularly enters the North American market, even when labelled as sustainable. Here, we explain how.  

What is dirty timber?

Dirty timber refers to timber and timber by-products that are linked to environmentally harmful practices and/or conflicts with Indigenous and rural communities. In some cases, this timber may carry a sustainability label, such as the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), a label that is internationally recognized by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).  Last year, we released a report explaining how these labels are being used to greenwash dirty timber products from Sarawak. The report included satellite images showing intense logging, including in many areas not approved by local Indigenous communities. The report also exposed seriously questionable environmental practices, like logging in a wildlife sanctuary and clearing land in violation of approved limits. These violations leave little doubt that timber from Sarawak is dirty. 

Why are certifications not always reliable?

In the case of the MTCS, our research, experience, and analysis has revealed serious weaknesses. Certificates have been granted in areas where communities have not given their consent to timber companies. Communities have filed complaints and campaigned against logging for years, yet the certificates continue to be granted. 

The credibility of certification schemes depends not only on the quality of their standards but also on the degree to which these standards are upheld. Central to this is the effectiveness and impartiality of the auditing mechanisms used to evaluate company compliance with their standards. Third-party social audits of timber companies, which are conducted to verify adherence to human rights requirements, sometimes lack rigor and depth. These audits regularly downplay human rights violations and unsustainable practices. If you can’t rely on the auditors enforcing the scheme, then you can’t rely on the certification as sustainable. 

How does dirty timber reach North American markets?

Dirty timber enters the North American market through local and international buyers. Logging companies typically have complex corporate structures with dozens of subsidiaries, which makes timber coming out of Sarawak difficult to trace. Our research has linked dirty timber from Sarawak with a handful of well-known companies operating in America, namely big distributors like Masonite, homewares brand Muji, and Roland Music. All of these companies have products linked to timber giant Samling, a company who has been at the center of disputes with Indigenous communities for decades. 

What can consumers do to avoid buying dirty timber?

One simple way to avoid buying dirty timber is simply to reuse, recycle and reduce. Consumerism drives deforestation. Opt for previously-used furniture or fix up that old desk that might just need a new coat of paint instead of buying something new. If you do have to buy a new product, check to see where your timber comes from. If it comes from Malaysia, where Indigenous rights are clearly not guaranteed, chances are high that it could be linked to dirty timber. Always try to buy local products instead of products that come from an ocean away. 

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